PURPOSE AND LEADERSHIP

Sandy Wright | Director – Executive Coaching and NEURI

 

I wrote a blog about purpose about a year ago, enjoining leaders to spend time assisting employees to see meaning in what they do. It has been noted by many in the field of psychology, behavioural science and anthropology that purpose and meaning is as important to robust health as good food, exercise and a sense of belonging. This is particularly true when considering mental health.

The human species currently enjoys the best living conditions, material wealth and longevity than at any other time in our history, yet mental health issues are exploding. According to the Australian government, mental health data from 2016-17 is already costing Australia $9 billion, while eight million days of work annually are lost to mental health issues.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates global mental health issues cost US$1 trillion in lost productivity annually.

So, what’s the connection between purpose and mental health?

Experts in the field of mental health have many theories for this. What’s common amongst many of them is an inkling that with all our basic needs met, our considerable thinking and brain processing capacity turns itself to the ‘so what does this all mean?’ or ‘is this all there is?’. Something now seems to be missing.  The missing is purpose, meaning, significance – all shades of the same need.

This sense of something missing is a trigger that frequently presents itself to executive coaches.  Leaders find themselves at a cross road of questioning what everything means after years of pursuing their career goals and achieving success. Ordinary employees are questioning whether they matter at work or whether their work is valued.

The behaviours resulting from these thoughts are:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

These are all characterised as burnout by the WHO, which recognises this as an occupational phenomenon.

If burnout and its associated resulting behaviours are an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition, then all leaders have a responsibility to examine their craft and its impact on their own behaviour, as well as the health of their employees.  By leadership, I mean in the political, corporate, education and parental spheres. At every opportunity, those of us in leadership roles need to consciously raise how each of us have a role, however small, that has meaning and worthwhile contribution for the greater good.

A potent political leadership example of this was when Jacinda Ardern spoke to school students in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Aware of their sense of grief, shock and helplessness, she gave them hope by saying that while all the adults will do their best to prevent such an event recurring, she asked each of them to do something really important. They had a role to play by standing up against racism every time they encountered it to create a future where our cognitive ‘out group’ bias no longer led to people dying because of it. She gave them meaning and the possibility of a better future over which they had some control for creating – in other words, a purpose.

Of course, none of us wants to be a leader under such circumstances. The real heroism of leadership is in the dogged, daily reminders to people of how their contribution has meaning in the scheme of things. That takes effort and may even feel clumsy or fake, yet the symbolism of that effort and discipline of making a habit of it is the responsibility of leadership. We can’t leave it to chance, especially in the current environment where meaning and significance is subsumed under deliberate attempts by many to sow discord and dissonance. When people feel alienated or untethered to meaning, we’re all at risk.

Knowledge of the neuroscience, and how our world views and resulting behaviours are created by our very human cognitive biases are beautifully explained by Stephen Fry in this animation – check it out here on YouTube. We can use this knowledge of our biases to create purpose and meaning, thereby lowering the alarming statistics that impact so negatively on our mental wellbeing and the economic health of our standards of living.

 

Purpose is one of the attributes that’s explored in ELEVEN’s world-class executive leadership and future leaders programs.

 If this blog has made you curious about how you can be better at being a purposeful leader and at creating meaning for your people, contact us here.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” 
― Friedrich Nietzsche